Coming Ashore Podcast Episode 6 – About the Mentor Sam McDougall

Posted on 20 April 2020 by Andrew Cowderoy


On Episode 6 of the Coming Ashore podcast, Andrew Cowderoy sits down with Coming Ashore mentor Sam McDougall. Chief Officer of P&O Ferries and former Royal Navy Sub-Lieutenant.

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Click here to find out more about the Coming Ashore programme. Where you'll find professional guidance, mentorship and work experience opportunities for transitioning to a career on land.

Andrew Cowderoy:

Hello ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Coming Ashore podcast. My name is Andrew Cowderoy and on today's episode, we have a Chief Officer of P&O ferries around the UK, and is a mentor on the Coming Ashore podcast. He's been able to navigate his career up unto this point extremely strategically, which we believe makes an ideal mentor, somebody who's been through the process of navigating that path. Of course, I would like to introduce you to Sam McDougal. Welcome, Sam. Thank you for joining the podcast.

Sam McDougall:

Oh, thanks very much Andrew. Thanks for having me.

Andrew Cowderoy:

It's a pleasure. Would you mind kicking off and sharing with our audience around the world, whether in lockdown, in India, Singapore, or at sea, in the Caribbean or anywhere else, why you decided to go to sea in the first place. What was it that drew you to, in your instance, a career in the Royal Navy?

Sam McDougall:

Well, I really have no right to be a seafarer if you look at what has traditionally been prerequisites to get a job at cadetship. I went through school with purely sort of arts based subjects and I went to study history at the University of Liverpool. While I was there studying, I had become interested in the Royal Navy through having been a cadet through the CCF at school. There was the opportunity to join the University Royal Naval units at Liverpool, which was affiliated to HMS Charger. I thought that looks like a great thing to do in the spare time. You got paid for it. It had a sort of route towards potentially join the Royal Navy in the future.

So, I signed up and I was happily sort of accepted into that as a officer cadet in the Royal Navy Reserve, list seven, so we're not going to do anything exciting. But what I got out of it was a fantastic amount of training and things like chart work, navigation, re-engineering, even things like presentation skills, leadership, management, a real sort of broad spectrum of all the skills that you need to be a seafarer. Not only in the Royal Navy, but a seafarer anywhere. From there, I thought, "Well, I'd quite like to join the Royal Navy." So, off I went. I was offered a place at Dartmouth as a warfare officer entrant. I got there, I was doing pretty well, then I had a bit of a setback and something just clicked in my head.

It was a sort of moment where I thought, "Actually, I don't know if this is for me anymore." I think at that time in my life, maybe I wasn't mature enough to think, "Well, this is only a temporary thing. Let's try and push through." But I made the decision to come out and pretty much the day after I left Dartmouth, I applied for various cadetships through the Merchant Navy because by that point I'd said, "Well, I still want to go to sea, I still am interested in navigation." I'd really sort of developed an interest in ship handling and wanting to be involved in ship handling. In fact, in my exit interview at BRMC, the commodore then ... if you hear horror stories about that interview, what's been said.

But the commodore there, I think he'd been to a meeting on HQS Wellington, and he came back to me and he said, "Well, I've spoken to somebody about this." He said, "Why don't you try something like ferries or offshore supply, there's lots of opportunities in the Merchant sphere where shiphandling's a key skill. Why don't you pursue that?" So, that's what I did. It was really much by luck than judgment that I got offered a cadetship with the company I work for now. That was back in 2012. I've stayed with them ever since. We've worked on various routes; the english Channel, North Channel between Scotland and Northern Ireland. I'm now on a sort of route between Liverpool and Dublin. Yeah, I've sort of progressed and that's where I am now.

Andrew Cowderoy:

So, touching on that career change from the Royal Navy to the Merchant Navy, now, you said you went through an exit strategy and the commodore had been on board HQS Wellington, home of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners, for those who are listening, and had a conversation with somebody and suggested that actually perhaps looking at the Merchant. Now, can you sort of elaborate on perhaps the thoughts that were going through your head, the steps that you're taking during that exit period of the RN [crosstalk 00:05:47] Merchant? Was it one interview that you sort of perhaps got supporting guidance towards a career in the Merchant? Can you perhaps just elaborate rather than me putting words in your mouth?

Sam McDougall:

Yeah, sure. In the initial stage, it was, "Oh, god. Blimey, what have I done?" I've jumped but there's nothing for me to go to. I thought the one thing that I still enjoy, I was still interested in, is navigation. That's what I want to pursue and develop. It's a skill I have developed over three years in my spare time. I could do something with this. It was really sort of, well, that's the next logical step, you know in my head at the time. I think it was Commodore Williams, I want to say Simon Williams, I think his name was. Commodore Williams, definitely Williams. If you're listening to this, then I did take your advice and I just sort of went with that. It was, like I say, it wasn't really at that time, this is what I want to go and do, off I go. It took a couple of weeks after I'd pulled the trigger to sort of come up with a logical plan, and off the basis of his advice, speaking to a few other people, looking at what opportunities laid down the road with ... down the Merchant STCW sort of training route. I thought, "Right. Well, I can see somewhere to go here. There's something worth getting at the end of it." That's being a master mariner. So, I decided, "Well, that's it." We're going to go down this track and despite whatever else comes along, the overriding drive is towards getting my masters certificate. So, that was it really. There wasn't really a plan, per se. It was a goal, and I'm just going to go work towards that.

Andrew Cowderoy:

So, just touching on that. You said you pulled the trigger, and then was it an immediate leave the RN as soon as you pull that trigger, or was there a period of time using the RN term, the transitionary period to transitioning into a new role. Was there a period of time-

Sam McDougall:

No. Well, it was a very short period of time. I had to go for an initial interview and at that time, I was told, "We'd like you to think about this for a couple of weeks. We don't think you're making a very good decision. I was given a number of different options, things to think about. I was told basically, "We don't want you to go." It was just quite flattering. I did get a two week period in which to sort of reconsider and go back for a second sort of exit meeting, a sort of leaving interview. That was when the deal was done. So, I hadn't really been in the Royal Navy long enough for there to be a properly supported ... that wasn't really where we were at. You know, basic training, and I decided it wasn't for me. I was thankful I did get a couple of weeks to consider is that really what I wanted to do.

Andrew Cowderoy:

And it was in that couple of weeks that the ... correct me if I'm wrong, the commodore had gone off, spoken to some chaps, and sort of perhaps where the concept of joining the Merchant Navy came along?

Sam McDougall:

Yeah, that's where it came along. I think having a bit of contact with the auxiliary cadets who were at the college at the time and their training officer, that put the sort of seed in my head, I would probably say because I remember looking at these guys thinking, "Crikey, these guys are doing something which is pretty much ... it looks like this, but it's not," and they're going to get a qualification which allows them to go and do all these other things rather than just this, if that makes sense. Obviously, the Royal Navy's got lots of different roles and jobs and things you can go and do, but I thought these guys are getting a pretty good deal here. They're going to come out of this, everything paid for, they've got civilian qualification that allows them to not just work for the RFA, they can go and work for whoever. That is the seed really, I picked up on that. Then, I looked into it a bit further and then decided that I wanted to go towards getting a civilian certificate.

Andrew Cowderoy:

So, it was, despite it was a very quick period, there was a degree of ... a plan as such in the sense that you had a goal that you wanted to achieve. You didn't necessarily know how to achieve it, but speaking to the commodore, speaking to colleagues, and attending ... was it an open day that you sort of found out about the role of the RFA and that sort of similarity?

Sam McDougall:

Well, part of the training that I'd already received and part of the stuff that you have to study in order to get into that position to be training at Dartmouth, you already have to learn quite a lot about what the RFA is, what it does, how they operate. So, I was pretty familiar with the structure and it wasn't until actually speaking to their trainees that I thought, "I don't know, there's something here that I actually quite like." There wasn't really any open day, it was purely, I spoke to a couple of guys and then from that went off and researched it all myself and sort of formulated a, like I say, probably not what you want me to say. I think you want me to say, "Yes, this is-

Andrew Cowderoy:

No. It's bang on the nail. You had a goal in sight and that goal was to continue navigating, continue ship handling. However, you wanted perhaps slightly more out of your career and have the ability to transfer within the industry, look at different opportunities, whether that's future career at sea, or indeed one on land. You knew what you wanted. You spoke to those people in the RN and industry to help guide you in that process, which in essence is where this project comes from where we, through the mentor program, as you know, it's helping people understand what they want. Then, helping guide them to that point and ensuring that they're in the best position. Now, you did that from RN to Merchant. So, I think it's actually a perfect example of whilst it may not be the strictest of plans, it's perhaps the more ... you knew where you wanted to go and you made that happen.

Sam McDougall:

Yeah, I'm going to touch on what I said earlier. I came from a purely sort of arts based background and I had a degree in history, I'd done a lot of training in nautical subject in my spare time and then I'd spent a short time, I think it was about 12 weeks at the BRNC. I think if it hadn't been for that experience, they would not have accepted me into foundation degree entry, nautical science at Fleetwood College. But it was purely because of that RN connection, that sort of teed me up for it, if that's a word. I think if I was going to sort of spoil it all down to something specific, it's wanting to be, to a certain degree, master of your own destiny.

I've got a piece of paper in my hand that I can take wherever and get a job on this type of vessel, that type of vessel, different parts of the world. That's not how it turned out for me in the end. But that was definitely a draw, to be, right, I'm actually driving this process myself now down a road that I am dictating. It was a lot of uncertainty about training pathways and things in the Royal Navy. That was probably another thing in the back of my mind. I just thought, "Right. I'm going to just take control of this myself and I'm going to drive towards this my own way."

Andrew Cowderoy:

I think that's another of the great takeaways from this conversation is that master of your own destiny, when anybody's considering a career change, whether it's to continue at sea and perhaps become a chief master or specifically come ashore, you're in the position to be that master, to make that decision process and to come ashore. I'm sure you've learnt a huge number of skills over that period of time and upon reflection, sort of even more experience where you may have done something differently than what you did, that you can impart. If you were to reflect on actually, that process, is there anything that you would have perhaps done any differently, apart from staying in the Royal Navy, that you could perhaps sort of impart on to the seafarers who may be considering that career change?

Sam McDougall:

In terms of career change out of the Royal Navy?

Andrew Cowderoy:

Well, that point of when you took that, made that decision, or sort of went through that process of leave the Royal Navy, join the Merchant Navy, we've dived into deep that period, but is there anything sort of specifically that you would tell a seafarer who's perhaps, rather than going Royal Navy, Merchant Navy, Merchant Navy continuing their maritime career on shore, that you'd be able to impart on to those people from the experiences that you've taken from the RN/MN route?

Sam McDougall:

I think the thing that I took away is that there becomes a point with something where it's no longer good for you, you know? Be that mentally, psychologically, physically, financially, whatever that is. There becomes a point where this thing that you are currently engaged in isn't working and/or you don't feel like it's taking you the direction that you want to go. The best decision I made was to have the courage to say, "Actually, no, I'm going to take that jump and I'm going to go and do this." Whether that was backed up with a great deal of planning or not, people can make their own minds up based on what I've just been saying, but having the courage in yourself, the conviction to say, "No, this isn't what I want to do with my life now, I'm going to go and pursue this." It's just to have the confidence that the skills that you've already got and the knowledge that you've gained from your career at sea so far is incredibly broad ranging. That sets you up, I would say, really well in terms of your transferable skills.

One thing that I've learnt through my career in the Merchant Navy so far in what I've been doing is that in certain roles in the Merchant Navy, you're given an incredible amount of responsibility very quickly and very early on. You have to learn how to step up to that challenge and perform those duties professionally to a high standard, deliver what's expected of you. It's so multifaceted as well. You've got things from completely opposing discipline, things that are incredibly technical; engineering based through to more sort of soft side, people, human element sort of skills. There's such a broad ... you're so experienced in such a broad base of different tasks and different roles that you do just in the course of your every day role that anyone thinking of making that jump should really take a great deal of confidence and say, "Yeah, I'm absolutely ... I'm prepared with what I have already to make that jump and make the best of it."

Andrew Cowderoy:

And take that confidence and be able to put it into a role like you did from the RN to the Merchant Navy and apply those skills into whatever you want to do next.

Sam McDougall:

Yeah. Sure.

Andrew Cowderoy:

Jumping into sort of the mentorship, I mean, we've spoken ... we've known each other for a very long time and there's a point that I want to sort of bring up here from Sam's experience going Royal Navy, Merchant Navy, and my career from training as a cadet at Fleetwood alongside Sam, albeit different companies, different ships. I remember very clearly, and it's perhaps one of the key reasons, or one of the huge benefits of why I stayed at Fleetwood and continuing the conversation was a conversation after being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, that ended my career at shore and there was a conversation with Sam that I actually said, "Look, keep at it. Complete the FD." You'll take a lot of benefit from it. Excuse me, I'm getting slightly emotional here. I remember that as bright as day, sitting on the sofa in the house in London and on the phone. I mean, if you join the program, Sam's got a huge amount of experience and qualifications and various soft skills that do make him an idea mentor on the program and I would attest part of my career to, certainly continuing the Foundation Degree, to those conversations that I had with Sam during that career change. Now, sorry, perhaps that started to answer the question, now, looking at what sort of attracts you to continuing, I suppose, a degree of that mentorship within the Coming Ashore program, the Marine Society, and helping our seafarers come ashore?

Sam McDougall:

Yeah. For me, I've taken a lot out of mentoring schemes myself. I mean, I've been involved with the Honourable Company of Master Mariners' scheme now for eight years, since I was a cadet. I signed up with that and I've taken a great amount of sort of support, guidance, and just a general sort of sense that you're a part of something bigger from that. For me, when Andrew contacted me and said, "Do you want to be involved with this?" There will be people saying, "Well, how is this guy relevant? He hasn't transferred ashore, he's still at sea, he's just transferred from one seagoing job to another seagoing job." I'm very keen to ... I have made that decision, I've made a transition, and if I can sort of offer any sort of help or support or sort of wisdom, if I'm old enough to be wise. Not too sure. But if I can offer anything, then I would really be happy to feed that back and sort of give something back through mentoring because it's benefited me so much.

Andrew Cowderoy:

Thank you. I think there's a point to realize and remember your own mountain of value, your own confidence in your skills and abilities, and you have transferred from one establishment to another and albeit still on boats that float on water, and navigating two very different roles within that from the Royal to the Merchant. That alone, is hugely beneficial. Certainly knowing sort of some concepts for the future, there is that sort of know where you want to go, know what you need to do, and how to achieve it, and that's definitely worth remembering and considering as one of the many reasons why I asked you to be part of the project.

Sam McDougall:

Yeah. I mean, I've worked with so many people who have gone to sea, they've got into a role as a junior officer, and they either don't know where to go from that or they don't have anything which is supporting them moving in a different direction. I think one of the things which the industry isn't great at, at the moment is ... especially at the entry level, is actually saying, "Right. Well, we're giving you these skills, how about we support them in heading towards what they want to do," if that makes sense. There's not a great deal of career guidance. It's very much sort of, we're going to bring all these cadets to the end of their training, here's your ticket, here's your foundation degree, HMD, whatever it is you're accompanying that with, off you go. I think if we can be in position to help those people, help people who have got to a position in their seagoing career, you think, "Right. Well, I'm not getting anything out of this anymore, for whatever reason. I want to move onto something still involved in maritime, but ashore." I think that's a really good thing to be involved in. I'm sure I'm going to take a lot of stuff away from this, just being involved in this project myself, in the future. Yeah, really happy to be involved.

Andrew Cowderoy:

Oh, thank you very much, Sam. I think on that point is a perfect point to wrap this up. I would like to thank you very much for being part of the Coming Ashore program, supporting our seafarers around the world, in taking their next steps in their careers, whether that's ashore or perhaps staying at sea, if that's right for them and taking the time out of your day before you step back into work tomorrow, which I know is going to be a trialing time considering the current situation that we're in. For those who are listening, we're recording this at the very end of March, in the heat of the coronavirus pandemic. So, thank you for continuing to keep Britain afloat and supply our nation.

Sam McDougall:

Oh, thanks very much. I think if we're going to gain anything from this situation that we're in, it's hopefully people will be a bit more aware of how all these things that they consume get to them, and everyone involved in the maritime sector should be taking a great deal of pride from what they're doing at this time. Thank you very much for having me on podcast. Really enjoyed that, thanks.

This podcast was presented by the Marine Society. If you want to find out more about the coming ashore project, be sure to subscribe to the channels podcast on YouTube, Spotify, iTunes. Visit us on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or visit the Marine Society website.

For more information on the Marine Society's Coming Ashore program, including information on mentorship, please visit our Coming Ashore page.


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